From the Mailbag: Building Up New York City

Earlier today, I linked to a Ryan Avent post complaining that although dense cities like New York are much greener than towns and suburbs, his lefty, environmentally-aware neighbors fight against new high-density developments in the city anyway. A little later, I had an email exchange with HW, a lefty, environmentally-aware New Yorker who thinks Ryan has it all wrong. Here's the exchange:

HW: It is true that people living in NY have much much lower carbon footprints than those who live in lower density areas. It's also true that it is a highly desirable place to live. So wouldn't the way to accomplish more people living in high density areas like NY be to replicate it elsewhere? Or should we insist on cramming more people into NY against NYers' will and make it a less desirable place to live?

Wouldn't it be better for 8 million people to live in NY and have it serve as a beacon for a great, lower carbon footprint lifestyle? If you cram an extra million people in, sure, you lower their carbon footprints, but you may also make high density urban living far less attractive and less likely to be replicated around the country.

Avent mentions problems with parking and traffic as a throw-away, but I can tell you, the 4-5-6 running up from midtown to the Upper East Side is quite literally crammed wall-to-wall with people every morning. Parking is unlikely to be an option for anyone unwilling to spend several hundred dollars a month. And yes, another ten skyscrapers will result in the city becoming a darker and more depressing place. Not to mention the fact that the last ten high rises that went up on the Upper East Side were creatures of the housing bubble, resulting in massive losses and lots of empty units.

So would it be so terrible if we built up the downtown areas of Jersey City, White Plains and Stamford instead?

My reply: Well, that's the funny thing. Building new high-density areas is the obvious answer here, but no one ever does it. Why? I assume it's because it's next to impossible to get people to move to new high-density developments. You get all the bad aspects of density without any of the good aspects of living in a big, well-established city.

It's a conundrum. We could use more well established cities, but no one wants to live in the intermediate stages that it takes to build one. And of course, in well-established smaller towns and cities, the residents fight like crazed weasels to prevent the kind of development that they associate with crime and gangs.

I don't really know what the answer is.

HW again: I'm not sure that's entirely true. What about all the downtown redevelopment projects that have happened around the country? Or the urban centers that sprout up around the core of big cities like NY. Next time you are in NY, look across the East River and take a gander at Long Island City. It's as close to midtown as the Upper East Side, easy to build there, far less expensive, and just as dense. And every single one of those luxury high rises went up in the past 12 years; it's literally a skyline that didn't exist 12 years ago. Jersey City is a similar story, both for residential and financial (every big bank has moved their IT back office out there). Or look at the gentrification of Brooklyn!

So why obsess on cramming a couple hundred thousand more people on the island of Manhattan, which will push it past the bursting point? It's just not a smart premise. In fact, I'll go further: it bears no relationship to reality. No one would stop a luxury high rise in any of the other four boroughs or right across the river in NJ and it's just as dense and low-carbon to live in those spots. It's just that Ryan Avent doesn't WANT to live in those spots. He wants to live in a cheaper high rise in Manhattan (which, by the way, has seen tons of them go up already in the past decade — in the Financial District, Hell's Kitchen, the Upper East Side). Avent should ride the 4/5/6 at 8 am every morning for a week, come back, and tell us if his article makes any sense. As a 4th generation NYer, I don't think it even begins to.

I don't really have a dog in this fight since I've lived in the leafy suburbs of Orange County all my life. But I thought this was an instructive response that was worth sharing. Back to you, Ryan.

Death by Wi-Fi

The Wall Street Journal writes today about the latest in pseudo trends: finding a place to work that's internet free:

Gone are the days when a café with good enough coffee, a lax policy on lingering and an open Wi-Fi signal made it the perfect spot for writers to work. With infinite temptations just a mouse click away, many writers are seeking out an increasingly scarce amenity in a wired city: disconnected workspaces.

For the past eight years, Joanna Smith Rakoff has worked at the Writers’ Room, an office on Astor Place where creative types pay monthly fee to keep a desk. In an effort to stay productive, she never asked for the Wi-Fi password. But a recent deadline crush forced her to get online, and in the process she learned a password she couldn’t forget:12345678.

“I’ve not worked as well since,” said Smith Rakoff, 38, who published her first novel, “A Fortunate Age,” last year. “The pull of the Internet, of correspondence, is just too distracting.” She’s now contemplating a move to Paragraph, another workspace on 14th Street, in a bid to recapture her Internet innocence.

Etc. etc., with several other examples offered of writers desperately seeking out coffee shops that don't have Wi-Fi. Like this: "After much searching, West Village novelist Daphne Uviller happened upon her “second office.” The author, whose novel “Hotel No Tell” will be published next month, refused to divulge too many details. She did admit that her workspace without Wi-Fi required her to purchase a lot of $10 quinoa salads."

Look, I get that being online is distracting. But seriously, what's up with these people? You can turn off the Wi-Fi on your laptop, can't you? (I can on mine.) You can turn off your cell phone, can't you? (I can turn mine off.) So what's the deal here? I know all about internet addiction, since I have at least a mild case of it myself, but just how little self-control do you have to have to be unable to simply turn off your connection when you don't want to be disturbed? This is nuts.

Avoiding the President

Here's the latest on gun legislation in the aftermath of the Tucson shooting:

Administration officials have concluded that Obama would probably lose any legislative fight against the National Rifle Association. So, they are taking a different approach: Inviting the NRA to sit down for a chat. Administration officials said Monday that the Justice Department will ask NRA officials to participate in closed-door meetings in the coming weeks to explore a path forward.

But the NRA turned him down flat:

“Why should I or the N.R.A. go sit down with a group of people that have spent a lifetime trying to destroy the Second Amendment in the United States?” said Wayne LaPierre, the longtime chief executive of the National Rifle Association.

I don't want to make too much of this. LaPierre is about as hardcore as interest group leaders get, and his attitude is perhaps not a surprise.

Still, in the past there's always been a bipartisan assumption that the president is the president, and if he invites you to a meeting, you go. That's broken down recently, and I attribute it to two things: Obama's appearance at the Republican retreat last January, followed by his healthcare summit a month later. When Obama offered to speak at the retreat, Republicans let him do it. He's the president, after all. And when Obama initially proposed the healthcare summit, even uber-obstructionist Bill Kristol echoed the old school sentiment: "Obviously when the president invites you to the White House, you go."

But no longer. Now conservatives do their best to delay meetings at the White House, or they just outright refuse, as LaPierre did. Why? I think it's partly because Obama scored such obvious public opinion wins at both the retreat and the summit. He's mastered the art of controlling the conversation and sounding like a voice of reason in settings like this, and conservatives — especially tea party conservatives — don't trust themselves any longer to come out ahead when they're negotiating with him. They now consider even closed-door meetings at the White House to be traps, and they are, to put it bluntly, afraid of Obama. I'm not quite sure whether that's good news or bad.

Defunding the Left

Dave Weigel says that Republican governors like Scott Walker, Rick Scott, and John Kasich are "using the power to push through structural political and economic changes that will be hard to reverse. They're making the same bet Obama did — if they do this, the economy will rebound, and their political opponents will have been weakened in a way they may never recover from." Jonathan Bernstein disagrees:

Really? I don't think so. The clearly analogue for what Scott Walker did in Wisconsin would have been card check for the Democrats; they didn't do that. Nor did they pass a campaign finance bill to tilt the future playing field (Democrats did eventually push fairly hard for a minor campaign finance bill after Citizens United, but it wasn't even on the agenda before that). Nor did Democrats take advantage of their temporary 60 vote supermajority in the Senate to flood the federal courts with liberal judges. For that matter, there's nothing magic about 60, and Democrats certainly could have refashioned the Senate into a majority-rules institution, and then passed whatever they wanted even when they "only" had 58 or 59 votes.

The Democrats didn't even bother to secure two solid votes in the Senate by passing DC statehood.

I'm with Jonathan on this one. I just finished a short piece for the next issue of the magazine about Republican efforts to push through structural changes that either permanently defund the left or reduce its voting strength. In the past, that included efforts to defund public interest law groups, ongoing battles to degrade the power of private sector unions, promotion of "pack and crack" redistricting that limited the influence of minority voters, and support of tort reform rules that hurt trial lawyers. More recently, it's included their assaults on public sector unions, the defunding of ACORN, and tenacious efforts to pass voter ID laws aimed at making it harder for minorities, the young, and the poor to vote.

One question my editors had when I turned in the piece was an obvious one: don't liberals do this too? And if they don't, why not?

As near as I can tell, the answer to the first is no, they don't. The closest equivalent would be serious campaign finance reform that reduced the power of rich people and corporations, but there's never really been a ton of support for that among working politicians on the left. What's more, really hardcore campaign finance reform would hit hard at a lot of Democratic donors too, not just Republican ones. Even in the best case, it would probably tilt the playing field only modestly.

As for the second question, I don't have a clue. I very much doubt it's because we're nicer guys than our counterparts, so it must be something else. Maybe it's just plain harder to defund conservative support groups like the NRA, the Christian right, big business, and rich people. Maybe it's because Democrats depend too much on rich people and corporations themselves. Or maybe it's something else. Both sides fight for their own preferred policies just as hard as the other, but when it comes to attacking the other side's basic infrastructure, Republicans are unquestionably more ruthless and creative than Democrats. Anybody have some interesting guesses about why this is?1

1By "interesting," I mean something other than "conservatives are all a bunch of shameless thugs, so what do you expect?"

The Other Shoe

Megan McArdle comments on the stock market crashes that have followed Japan's recent earthquake:

Periodically, you hear students of the Great Depression wondering whether another shoe is going to drop, the way it did with Austria's Creditanstalt in 1931. The economy looked as if it was going to recover from a sharp, but not all that unusual recession--and then Creditanstalt failed and everything really went to hell. Unfortunately, we have a lot of candidates for the next disaster: oil disruptions in the Middle East, the European debt crisis, and now Japan.

Pessimist though I am, I have to admit that "gigantic earthquake in Japan" was not on my list of possible flash points for the global economy. And in the end, I don't think it will be. Still, it just goes to show that you can't think of everything. If the losses in Japan expose weaknesses in the insurance industry, who knows what might happen next?

The Wisdom of Crowds

Ryan Avent says that while bike lanes are great, the mere existence of big cities like New York is far more important than details like bike friendliness:

Net emissions fall a lot more when someone from Houston moves to New York than when someone from New York starts biking.

Happily, lots of people would LOVE to move to New York. This is one huge benefit we don’t need to subsidize to realize. Unhappily, the benefit is nonetheless out of reach because of the huge obstacles to new, dense construction in New York. New York can’t accommodate more people unless it builds more homes, and it can’t build more homes, for the most part, without building taller buildings. And New Yorkers fight new, tall buildings tooth and nail. They fight them on aesthetic grounds, and because they’re worried about parking and traffic, and because they’re worried about their view, and because they just think there’s enough building in New York already, thank you. And many do this while heaping massive scorn on oil executives and the Republican Party over their backward and destructive views on global warming.

....My old neighborhood, Brookland, voted overwhelmingly for Obama (about 90-10, as I recall). Many of the locals are vocally supportive of broad, lefty environmental goals. And yet, when a local businessman wants to redevelop his transit-adjacent land into a denser, mixed-use structure, the negative response is overwhelming, and residents fall over themselves to abuse local rules in order to prevent the redevelopment from happening.

For what it's worth, I'd dial down the scorn and take this as an opportunity. Here's the thing: my guess is that virtually nobody in the country thinks that cities are greener places than towns or suburbs. And by "virtually nobody," I mean maybe a few percent tops. For most people, it's wildly counterintuitive on all sorts of levels to think of big, dirty, crowded, urban areas as "green." It just doesn't compute.

The downside of this is that urbanophiles have a huge uphill battle ahead of them to change people's minds. The upside is that there's no place to go but up. It might take years or decades, but there's a genuine opportunity to educate the public over the long term and change the way they think about density. And this in turn represents a genuine opportunity to change the way Ryan's lefty friends think about developers who want to put up dense new buildings.

It won't happen quickly, but frankly, there aren't all that many areas where educating the public has much chance of changing things at all. At least in this case the opportunity is there.

Wasting a Crisis

Jonah Goldberg is upset that people are starting to ask fresh questions about nuclear power in the wake of Japan's earthquake and tsunami:

When thousands die, or when some sudden calamity befalls us, the tendency of politicians, journalists, policymakers and experts is to seize the moment to advocate radical changes. "A crisis," Rahm Emanuel famously declared in the early days of the Obama administration, "is a terrible thing to waste."

That this axiom didn't generate more controversy always struck me as bizarre. I mean, shouldn't it be "a crisis is a terrible thing to exploit"? So here we go again in Japan, where the tragedy is literally too terrible to comprehend.

Speaking for myself, I'm with Rahm: it's nearly impossible to get human beings to react to anything less than a crisis, so if you ever want anything at all to get done you'd better take your chances where you find them. But that's just me. Obviously Jonah feels otherwise, and I look forward to his future counsels of caution and deliberation whenever his fellow conservatives appear to be taking advantage of a short-term crisis in order to push their long-term agenda.

The Abuse of Private Manning

Mark Kleiman:

I had breakfast yesterday with two colleagues, both of them actively interested in public affairs and both of them relatively heavy consumers of newspapers and television news. Neither of them had heard about the maltreatment of Pfc. Bradley Manning until the flap over P.J. Crowley’s statement.

Today the New York Times editorialized about Manning, so maybe finally a few more people will hear about this:

Private Manning is in solitary confinement at the Marine Corps brig in Quantico, Va. For one hour a day, he is allowed to walk around a room in shackles. He is forced to remove all his clothes every night. And every morning he is required to stand outside his cell, naked, until he passes inspection and is given his clothes back.

Military officials say, without explanation, that these precautions are necessary to prevent Private Manning from injuring himself. They have put him on “prevention of injury” watch, yet his lawyers say there is no indication that he is suicidal and the military has not placed him on a suicide watch.

....Private Manning is not an enemy combatant, and there is no indication that the military is trying to extract information from him.

Actually, I'm not sure that last part is true. I think it's entirely possible that the military wants Manning to provide evidence that implicates Julian Assange on espionage charges. I wouldn't be at all surprised if the abuse of Manning is being done in hopes of extracting from him the kind of confession they need in order to make an indictment stick.

It's loathsome behavior regardless, of course. And just to remind everyone: Manning is, for the time being anyway, an innocent man. He hasn't even been put on trial yet.

The Evolution of Blowhardery

The Project for Excellence in Journalism reports that the audience for cable news plummeted last year. In particular:

The audience for cable news in the last year declined substantially. In aggregate, the median viewership fell 13.7% across the entire day in 2010. Prime-time median viewership fell even more, 16% to an average of 3.2 million, according to PEJ’s analysis of Nielsen Market Research data. Daytime fell 12%.

This is interesting. The audience for actual cable news dropped a fair amount, but the audience for prime time blowhardery dropped even more. So the problem isn't that 24/7 news is too boring and needs further injections of attitude, because it turns out that attitude isn't selling as well as it used to. On the other hand, CNN cratered in prime time far worse than the two blowhard cable news outlets, so apparently the public appetite for more high-minded analysis is weak too.

I don't really know what to make of this, but in a weird way I blame MSNBC. For a while, Fox was sui generis, and their viewers basked in the idea that they were part of an exclusive fraternity of insurgents fighting the liberal media monolith. Then MSNBC became the Fox of the left, and suddenly the liberal monolith was unmasked as.....Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann. Once prime time explicitly became just a battle of Team Right versus Team Left and Team Nothing, that made all the blowhardery just a little less special than it used to be in the good old days. Even diehard partisans probably started to lose interest, and that dampened the appetite for prime time cable shows of all stripes.

Then again, maybe it's all Glenn Beck's fault. When a guy like that becomes the face of cable opinionmongers, it can hardly help but give opinonmongering a bad name.

The Flavor of the Day in Libya

Jonathan Chait thinks that Barack Obama is too attached to defending the status quo in international affairs:

The Obama administration's decisions in Iraq and Afghanistan show that it's obviously not allergic to the use of military force. Rather, it seems to have an extremely strong status quo bias. The policy rationale for aiding Libya's rebels seems clearly stronger than the policy rationale for pressing on in Afghanistan. Yet here we are. You can justify each decision on its own terms, of course. But it appears to me that the level of fear of American intervention in the Middle East displayed by Obama here — a level strong enough to foreclose a no-fly zone in defense of, and aid to, an indigenous uprising — would also be strong enough to push it out of one or both of its current wars. Instead, we simply have status quo across the board.

This is probably true, but I'm not sure how it could really be otherwise. It takes a lot of energy to change the status quo, and it takes a lot of energy regardless of which direction you're trying to move it. There's only just so much energy and just so many resources that a president has at his disposal, and that limits his options considerably.

Besides, if the result of status quo bias right now is a strong tendency not to get involved in military operations that can easily spiral out of control, that's probably a good thing. Establishing a no-fly zone in Libya is suddenly the flavor of the day in amateur war punditry, but it's no silver bullet. Before we go there, I'd like to hear some experienced professionals telling me that a no-fly zone would (a) actually make a significant difference and (b) not be likely to lead to an escalation of forces. If Obama wants to hear the same thing before he commits the United States to yet another war, then good for him.